Wit’s Wild Empire

by kiminogomi

Technology is an expression of man’s [sic] dreams. If man did not indulge his fantasies, his thoughts alone would inhibit the development of technology itself.
— Ted Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines

Ted Nelson is right: fantasy, dream, play are not trivial. To make technology our own rather than merely a corporate delivery method for goods and services, we must think useless thoughts, that is, philosophical ones rather than goal-directed ones. As Nelson points out about radio, when we have a goal and a medium we already have plotted a course, whether we are conscious of it or not.

This works for language and thus for writing, which is why a relatively unstructured and fresh medium like blogging feels so liberating. When we speak or write we already know the end of the sentence, the goal of the text, even if we have not yet dragged it (sometimes kicking and screaming) into consciousness; language is thought groping towards itself, a recursive spinning back and forth across a gap of meaning which is rapidly closing. To imagine that we write with the whole thing already worked out in some other form (notes, outlines, whatever), to impose structure prior to content, is to run the process at half power, shutting down language’s potential to generate the new.

How are we to identify the thing that makes language more than simple goal-directed behavior or empty imitation? We know that even small children make new sentences, and that language for them also is not simply about getting a cookie. Words are toys, rhyme and rhythm are pleasures, and some words even freak people out (what a powerful discovery!).

There is in fact a term, one much in vogue in Europe and England a mere two centuries ago, when the printing press was churning out masses of stuff and some principle of selection was required. The term had been around, of course, and it had elitist connotations, but then so did computers at first. It was “wit,” and it was somewhat ineffable, although it combined humor, intelligence, literacy, and an awareness of manners. Wit also entailed a willingness to be a bit rude or satiric if that would change people’s perspective. And most importantly, wit might educate or satirize, but it did not demand to be taken too seriously.

Ted Nelson’s style, with its broad reading and playful interpolation of other texts, its meaningful yet comic inversion (literally) of codex structure, its hybridity and call for change, is above all an example of wit in action. Hybridity is a fertile breeding ground for wit, since the interplay between forms opens up a space for shifts in consciousness, dual meanings, ironies, fresh perspectives. To return to one of my pet subjects, the medium we call comics is highly capable of wit because it is so very dual: the static image accompanies the linear word, exploring all the varieties of dual meaning. Comics are (obviously) comic, even when at the level of narrative the fate of worlds hangs in the balance. Nelson’s ethical high seriousness is not contradicted by his play with images, but cast into relief, enhanced, illuminated, made accessible — which is precisely his point; the more people “get it,” the more empowered we will all be.

Unfortunately, US culture seems to have lost sight of the importance of wit. Most films based on comics have replaced playfulness with an ever-greater insistence on how very serious the whole thing is, or relegated wit to a string of obvious and cheap gags. The recent Batman films are so po-faced, so deadly earnest, that they manage to be simultaneously frenetic and deadly dull; the Ironman franchise, while less stultifying, suffers from the conviction that a lap dance is the font of all humor. The recent exception is The Avengers, in which Joss Whedon reminds us that good dialogue and playful action are always much wittier than sight gags and over-emphasized one-liners, and more true to the source genre (Stan Lee liberally peppered his creations with verbal humor, while Jack Kirby’s visual images were dynamic and fairly serious, but wildly stylized). Whedon’s movie is great fun, as (in a very different way) is Tim Burton’s seminal Batman, with its funhouse visual style and ironic dialogue. Both succeed because they are not afraid to break new ground, to be weird. And real comics, unlike films, are always weird, if only because the static image with its frozen, captive energies pulls against the forward motion of language, creating a psychological tension between Imaginary and Symbolic, fixation and dynamism, fantasy and clarification. Wit finds its home, its empire, in these hybrid media.